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Introduction to the Paradoxplace Cistercian History and Photo Pages

The early years of the Cistercian Order (this page)

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Chronology Entry















Cistercian Monks and Abbeys first appeared on the European scene around 1100.  Their first abbey was built at Cîteaux (Latin Cistercium, hence "Cistercian") near Nuits-Saint-Georges in Burgundy. 


Over the next  two hundred years the Cistercians were responsible for building hundreds of abbeys in places they made into the most beautiful in Europe.  Alone amongst the monastic orders, they were also responsible for significant advances in agriculture and civil engineering, and worked to an international governance agreement  800 years before the phrase was invented. 


Today hundreds of their abbeys still exist, some as working abbeys or churches, some as museums, some as hotels and country houses and some in various stages of ruin.



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by Pope Urban II

it reached, and bloodily conquered, Jerusalem in 1099






The Crosier of Saint Robert of Molesme

(Dijon - Musée des Beaux-Arts)


In March 1098 a small group of reformist monks from the Clunaic Monastery of Molesme led by their abbot Robert (1028 - 1111), took over some unattractive swamp land they had been given in a forest at Cîteaux (Cistercium in Latin) in Burgundy, intent on finally setting up a monastic house true to real Benedictine ideals.  The Cistercian Order had been born. 


It was in fact the charismatic Robert who had founded Molesme in 1075, and he had been the major factor behind its huge success, which in turn seems to have led to the need to move on and do something less (temporally) successful. 


He was over seventy when he moved to what proved to be a real bummer of a location at Cîteaux, and maybe he was secretly glad when before too long he was ordered by the church to return to Molesme (which was suffering financially in his absence), leaving Alberic as the new Abbot for a very depleted and bedraggled group of Cistercian hermits.


Abbot Alberic was the right man in the right place at the right time - most importantly a practical man at a time when such skills were critical to the very survival of the fragile little group.  His first move was to relocate the monastery to a site one kilometre away, where there was dry building ground and a babbling brook - a feature of scores of future Cistercian houses.  He obtained the direct protection of the Pope (as opposed to the local bishop) for the new order, but also got the Dukes of Burgundy to give them the Meursault vineyard and a stone supply for the new abbey, which was consecrated on 16 November 1106.  Lastingly, he changed the monks' habits (gear) from Benedictine black to bleached raw wool - the White Monks were on the road.






Even during the Molseme days, the monks were developing a system of hand signs to facilitate the silent exchange of information.  The system was elaborated into over 200 signs at Citeaux and Clairvaux.


In 1675, Armand Jean le Bouthillier, Abbot of La Trappe, imposed a very rigorous regime based on that of the first Cistercians (but with a bit more mortification of the flesh).  The regime included a rule of silence.


By the end of the century La Trappe, which in 1650 was down to under ten choir monks, had nearly 100 in residence, and eventually became the centre for the breakaway Trappists - Cistercians of the Strict Observance.


La Trappe Abbey is still going strong, though don't go there expecting to see even the beautiful lakeside church - you won't be allowed past the smelly abbey shop outside the main gates. 







Alberic died in 1109, and was succeeded by Stephen ("Étienne" in French) Harding (c1060 - 1133 (73)), an Anglo Saxon nobleman who had originally trained at Sherborne Abbey in Dorset (in the West of England), had met Robert at Molseme and moved with him to Cîteaux, where he had stayed when Robert moved out.     In the words of author Stephen Tobin*, "Stephen Harding found Cîteaux just another reformed abbey, and left it the head of the first (European) religious order ... Nothing like it had ever been seen before ... At the head of a flourishing family of daughter houses, with a clearly defined manifesto and full legal constitution, Cîteaux was a force for change, and a force to be reckoned within a world where (other leaders) vied to outdo each other in accruing and displaying wealth and power".


Stephen Harding is credited with writing the Carta Caritatis (Charter of Charity - often referred to as the Charter of Love) - although it may have gone through a number of drafts before it emerged after his death.  It was a six page constitution which inter alia laid out the relationship between the Cistercian houses and their abbots, set out the obligations and duties inherent in these, and ensured the accountability of all the abbots and houses to the underlying themes of charity and living according to the rule of Benedict.  Within this new structure, monks elected and swore allegiance to the abbot of their "house" and in the larger abbeys also a prior, who ran the house on a day to day basis.  There were regular visits by abbots of mother houses to their daughters, and an annual assembly of representative abbots.  This made the Cistercians the first ever decentralized multinational organization (as opposed to the highly centralized head office run Clunaic structure) possessing the world's first international governance agreement.  It later had the effect of ensuring dissemination of engineering knowledge as a by-product of the various abbey visits and meetings that took place.



Obedience  -  Poverty  -  Chastity  -  Silence  -  Prayer  -  Work



It was Saint Stephen (Harding) who determined that Cistercian abbeys were to be sited in isolation - away from towns and villages and "far from the concourse of men".   Whilst nowadays one looks at Cistercian abbey sites with admiration for their "natural" beauty and proximity to water, it's worth remembering that when they were first colonised by the white monks they were mostly dank cold unwanted tracts of poor quality forest or undrained marshes.


Abbot Harding also formalized a Cistercian innovation - an additional class of membership called lay brothers, in essence labourers who worked the granges (farms) which were owned by the abbeys and from which the abbeys derived their incomes.  What this meant was that  Cistercians controlled their own workforces and production processes, rather than relying on people who leased land from them (which is what the other monastic orders did). 




Lay brothers on the tomb of Saint Étienne at Abbaye d'Aubazine

(photo from MSM book)






With a culture of engineering innovation (especially in relation to water power), and the direct control of a workforce to implement stuff, the Cistercians quickly came to lead Europe in the development of new agricultural and land drainage / clearance and management techniques in the large granges worked by their "non-commissioned monks".  For example the original drainage of the malarial swamps of Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna was down to a chain of Cistercian daughter houses of Clairvaux (translating into Chiaravalle in Italian) such as the beautiful and still active Chiaravalle della Colomba.


Other orders relied on feudal tithes, rents etc and did not get near to actually managing let alone working their lands, neither were they interested in improved techniques.  The Cistercians' engineering skills and their agricultural expertise (for example in wool production in Britain, where they transformed hitherto barren and unused lands in Yorkshire and the Welsh borders into great wool production areas)  was complemented in some cases by other professional and engineering skills (for example a later generation of Cistercians from the Abbey of San Galgano in Tuscany managed the Treasury of Siena, re-engineered its water supplies and had more than a distant influence on the building of its cathedral).  It was the Cistercians who fabricated some of the earliest known water taps, for use in the hand washing areas (called lavatoriums) outside the refectories in abbeys like Fountains in Yorkshire.


Back in the monasteries there was strict segregation of monks from the lay brothers.  The abbey churches were divided by a high masonry wall (misleadingly called a screen) across the nave to separate the "choir monks" from "lay brothers" and others.  In the renovations of our more egalitarian  times nearly all of these have disappeared - a rare exception being the Carthusian version still to be found in the refectory at the Certosa di Pavia.  The lay brothers had separate dormitory and eating facilities, usually on the west side of the cloister (a small bit of which was also dedicated for their use as they were not allowed to mingle with the proper or "choir" monks in the large cloister) .  This concept of the physical segregation of choir monks was widespread across all monastic orders in the Middle Ages, and its physical manifestations such as screened off choirs still exist in many of the European cathedrals which began their lives as monastic foundations.





Saint Stephen (Étienne) Harding

c1060 - 1134 (c74)


Saint Stephen Harding, Saxon nobleman from Sherborne, third Abbot of Cîteaux and the layer of the foundations (including the Cistercian Constitution "The Charter of Charity") which enabled the Cistercian movement to explode under Bernard. 


This image, in the traditional style of the abbot (or king or patron) presenting his church to the Virgin Mary, comes from the eleven hundreds' Cîteaux illuminated manuscript "Commentaries on Jeremiah". 


Saint Stephen (labelled "Abbas Cisterciensis") is on the right, and  the Abbot of Saint-Vaast d'Arras ("Abbas Atrebatensis") - a Benedictine abbey near Calais - is on the left.*


Lower down the scribe Osbert offers his manuscript.


*Some books about the Cistercians have transposed the identities of the two abbots - maybe the the authors were drawn to the bigger church!  Many thanks to one of our visitors for pointing this out.  The original m/s can be found in Dijon:   Commentaires de Saint Jérôme sur Jérémie (XIIth century), Bibliothèque municipale de Dijon. MS 130.




Cistercian monks split a log - from the Cîteaux manuscript Moralia in Job, 1111.




The Cistercians were founded in 1098, a year before the bloody conquest of Jerusalem by the First Crusade.  By the time Abbot Stephen Harding died in 1134 aged 74,  there were already 70 Cistercian abbeys in existence.  "In 700 years of monasticism in Europe, nothing like this had ever been seen before" says Stephen Tobin in his book.   


But they had not seen anything yet - the movement was just limbering up for the big leap, driven by the dynamic and very public orator Saint Bernard (1090 - 1153), founder and Abbot of Clairvaux.   By the end of the eleven hundreds there were over 500 Cistercian abbeys, mostly with huge agricultural land holdings and a dominant position in wool production (Britain), ironworks (Central France), agricultural land management and drainage and water engineering.  Such skills had made Cistercian abbeys and granges some of the most beautiful and productive sites and business enterprises in Europe.


The power of the great medieval abbeys and priories was being broken and replaced by the power of a multinational organization, and it is not surprising that there was much resistance from the former - turkeys have never knowingly voted for Christmas.



Next:  Saint Bernard and the Cistercians' Big Leap Forward


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